Questions about Russian arms sales to Iraq and Syria
Washington - The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has transfixed global attention as a new terrorist organisation surpassing al-Qaeda in ambition and violence, with Syria and Iraq as the frontline states. Russia, in a continuation of Soviet-era policies, provides both countries’ governments with diplomatic and military support while many Western nations ponder their responses.
Syria is Russia’s last Arab ally from the Cold War era of the Soviet Union’s diplomatic, economic and military support for Middle Eastern socialist and nationalist regimes. These included Egypt until 1972, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, Algeria and Yemen. While the USSR supported Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, it later changed its ideology and supported Arab states in the 1967 and 1973 conflicts.
The Soviet Union also supported Syria in the First Lebanon War in 1982. The USSR sold Syria several generations of advanced weaponry, including jet fighters. This support continued after the USSR collapsed in 1991. In 2005 Russia forgave Syria $10 billion of $13 billion of its Soviet-era debt and followed up with new arms sales.
After the “Arab spring” exploded across the Maghreb and Middle East in 2011, Russia was severely criticised by the West for its nearly $1 billion in weapons sales to the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.
Russia countered that its arms deliveries to Syria did not violate international law and insisted that the weapons were not intended to help its government fight insurgents but were sent to fulfil Soviet-era commitments.
Moscow views the “Arab spring” as a US-supported Islamist revolution that was triggered by US-developed media, including Twitter and Facebook. Russian experts and diplomats emphasise that the “Arab spring” is dominated by extremists with deep ties to the Islamist insurgency in Russia’s North Caucasus. Moscow fears that the ISIS conflict could spread to the “near abroad” post-Soviet Caucasian and Central Asian states and eventually into Russia proper via the North Caucasus.
As Russia views the “Arab spring” as a covert extremist “colour” revolution, it has shielded Assad’s regime from international sanctions and has continued to provide it with weapons despite international condemnation, delivering billions of dollars in armaments, including missiles, combat jets, tanks and artillery.
Until recently Russia averred that it only supplied Syria with weaponry to protect it from foreign invasion, not ordnance needed to fight lightly armed insurgents in cities. Russia also provided Syria with consistent diplomatic cover by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Syria, stating that such actions would be one-sided when rebels are able to obtain weapons via smuggling.
As ISIS extended its influence, Russian assistance to Syria rose accordingly. By the end of 2013 Russian armaments were being flown in by dozens of Antonov-124 cargo transports carrying armoured vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic warfare systems, helicopter spare parts and weaponry, including ammunition and guided aerial bombs.
In addition, Russian advisers and intelligence experts operated unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — to assist the Syrian military to locate insurgent positions, provide tactical analysis and assist the Syrians in carrying out precision artillery and air strikes.
While Iraq remains closely allied to the United States, despite the Americans ending their military presence there in December 2011, Russia is supporting Iraq as well. In June 2014 Russia declared its support for the Iraqi government and provided Su-25 jets and sent experts to aid the country in its fight against ISIS.
Iraq’s Defence Ministry announced on February 1st that its Army Air Corps had received two Russian Mi-28NE attack helicopters, bringing its total fleet to 15. On March 20th, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would continue to support Iraq in its fight against terrorism and strengthen its military-technical assistance.
Russia remains committed to helping Syria and Iraq resist ISIS, whatever the diplomatic consequences, as it promotes its own security concerns. On April 22nd Lavrov said: “Islamic State is our main enemy at the moment, if only because hundreds of Russian citizens, hundreds of Europeans, hundreds of Americans fight alongside ISIS.
“They are already coming back… and… could stage vile actions at home. We are helping both Iraq and Syria, possibly more effectively than anyone else, by providing weapons to their armies and security forces.”
As the ISIS militant threat consumes Syria and Iraq, Russia’s consistency in seeing it (rather than Assad’s government) as the real threat, stands in stark contrast to the policy of most Western countries and will apparently do so for the foreseeable future.